Riot police swarmed into the courtyard of Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission, intent on protecting its Canadian director from disqualified candidates -- many of them suspected warlords -- and their supporters shouting outside.
The situation was a small taste of the broader conflict across Afghanistan, as voters prepare to elect a national assembly for the first time in almost four decades -- deciding whether to stick with the old, tribal power of the gun, or to opt for a new, national and democratic parliament.
Grant Kippen, the Canadian who leads the commission, was sitting on the patio, trying to explain how his agency decides which candidates are allowed to run in tomorrow's parliamentary election. Meanwhile, outside the high walls and fences topped with barbed wire, the crowd screamed slogans through loudspeakers.
Warlords with private armies and drug money have been trying to intimidate, bribe and advertise their way into the new government. They're opposed by watchdogs such as Mr. Kippen, by the weak but growing cadre of Afghan politicians who embrace democracy, and by the collective memory of voters who recall the warlords' atrocities.
As election day looms, however, some observers fear the balance has swung in favour of the candidates with blood on their hands.
"They're already calling it the 'warlords parliament,' " said Adam Shapiro, the country director for Global Rights, an activist group based in Washington.
"It's a competition between the old and new Afghanistan," said Chris Alexander, the Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan, "between the Afghanistan of the jihadist, and the new people who want to make a break with the culture of the gun, the culture of the [opium]poppy."
Decades of civil war have left Afghanistan divided into the fiefs of local strongmen and tribal leaders. Human-rights advocates say the international forces should have marginalized the warlords once they had served their purpose because they're guilty of war crimes and have a significant interest in maintaining Afghanistan as the world's largest producer of opium.
Instead, many of them were given powerful positions in government, as the country's new U.S.-backed leader, Hamid Karzai, tried to create stability by making concessions.
Election organizers have tried to neutralize the factions by bringing them into the system. Rules forbid candidates to have current ties to "unofficial" armed groups, but don't restrict their previous connections.
That has inspired a flood of candidates with questionable histories. Thousands of complaints and challenges were filed with the commission, alleging that hundreds of the candidates were either controlled by warlords or were commanders of militias.
The commission was not equipped to handle the job, with a staff of 200, a narrow mandate and less than four months before the election.
As of yesterday, the commission had disqualified only 45 low-profile candidates, while several of the most powerful strongmen remain on the ballot -- a fact sharply criticized by Human Rights Watch and other major non-governmental organizations.
The commission also relied on a disarmament committee called the Joint Secretariat for much of the evidence used to reject candidates, Mr. Kippen said. Western diplomats and observers say the JS conducted intense negotiations with the warlords in the months before the election, trading co-operation for candidacy.
Some of the bargaining chips were guns: After 18 months of trying to disarm, the flurry of pre-election talks got 10,000 small arms off the streets within a few weeks.
Many observers say it's better to draw the warlords into rhetorical battles rather than risk actual fighting. Electoral rules discourage political parties, so many of the 5,800 candidates for the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga and the provincial councils are running as independents. In the absence of parties, the parliament is expected initially to divide along ethnic lines.
But even if the warlords manage to dominate that chaotic political scene, some analysts say, power remains centralized in the president's office, and roughly three-quarters of the national budget is from foreign donors who frequently have specific plans for their spending, so the problem may be contained.
"They will get bogged down in the molasses of the system," said Kit Spence, who runs a political-party development project for the National Democratic Institute.
Other observers say they're happy to hear Afghanistan's warlords boasting about how they've disarmed, rather than the opposite.
After giving angry speeches outside the Electoral Complaints Commission and trying to force his way through a line of police, Mir Zaman mopped his brow with a handkerchief and said that he was just trying to make the authorities understand that his brother, Commander Deedar, was wrongly disqualified from the election because he had already surrendered his guns.
A prominent jihadist leader from the Pashtun ethnic group, Commander Deedar has recently threatened to disrupt the election in revenge for his disqualification.
But his brother insists much more dangerous candidates remain in the running.
"Many commanders who committed crimes are still on the list," Mr. Zaman said. "They robbed people's homes; they killed lots of people. And they're still on the lists. How can that be?"
Afghanistan goes to polls
What the vote is for
Afghans will cast votes tomorrow in two elections: one for a candidate to represent their province for five years in the lower house of the national assembly (Wolesi Jirga, or House of People) and one for a candidate to represent them in their provincial council. It will be the first national elections since 1969 and the final phase of a process to bring democracy to Afghanistan that began when the United States ousted the Taliban government in late 2001.
The Wolesi Jirga has 249 seats, of which 68 (25 per cent) are reserved for women. Each of the 34 provinces is given a number of seats based on its population, with an additional 10 seats reserved for the candidates from the minority population of ethnic Pashtun Kuchi nomads.
How they will vote
Each voter will cast one vote for a single independent candidate to represent their province in the Wolesi Jirga. Each province has a set of open seats - which can go to men or women - as well as a set of seats reserved for women. The open seats go to the top vote-getters in each province; the seats reserved for women are given to the next top women vote-getters. The process for the provincial councils is similar.
Due to the high level of illiteracy (estimated at 72 per cent) and the fact that there could be as many as 390 candidates on a single ballot, those seeking office are identified on the ballot by name, photograph and a symbol. Candidates were allowed to choose their own symbol for use in campaign material from among three drawn at random from a pool chosen by the election commission.
Who is running
There are 2,778 candidates for the Wolesi Jirga, more than 10 per cent of whom are women. While political parties may endorse candidates, they are elected as independents and no party affiliations appear on the ballot.
All candidates must be at least 25 years old and have held Afghan citizenship for at least 10 years.
Judges, lawyers, government ministers, civil servants and armed forces officials are not allowed to run. Candidates are also barred if have their own military forces or are part of such forces at the time of candidacy, or if they have been convicted of a crime or otherwise legally deprived of their civil rights.
While 208 candidates were originally barred from running because of links to illegal armed groups, only 11 were removed from the candidates list after the appeals process.
SOURCE: ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF AFGHANISTAN JOINT ELECTORAL MANAGEMENT BODY
CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL